Local Optima and Abolitionist Ideals

In The Tyranny of the Ideal, Gerald Gaus draws attention to a trade-off faced by anyone pursuing an ideal conception of justice. What he says here seems almost trivially obvious (at least once he puts it down on paper), and seems to have obvious implications (at least once one sees it set out in print), but I still find it insightful. He calls it The Choice:

The Choice: In cases where there is a clear optimum within our neighborhood that requires movement away from our understanding of the ideal, we often must choose between relatively certain (perhaps large) local improvements in justice and pursuit of a considerably less certain ideal, which would yield optimal justice (Tyranny, p. 82).

The “neighborhood,” a term drawn from Rawls, refers metaphorically to the set of social options relatively similar to each other, hence easily changed from one to the other.* The idea is that we have better knowledge of the options within our neighborhood than the ones beyond it. The further we travel from our own neighborhood, the greater our ignorance of the realization-conditions of justice.

The point of Gaus’s Choice is that we face a trade-off between what we might call low-hanging and remote normative fruit–between optima in our neighborhood whose realization-conditions are relatively clear to us, and optima distant from our neighborhood that we’re not in a position to conceptualize or understand. If on epistemic grounds we prefer the pursuit of the proximate to the remote, we can find ourselves deviating substantially from the most direct route to our ultimate, remote, but ill-understood ideal. And yet, given our better understanding of the proximate to the remote, it can still make sense, or seem to make sense, to pursue low-hanging to distant fruit, however juicy the latter might seem.

I agree with Gaus. In fact, I happen to think that his Choice clarifies something he happens not to mention (at least as far in the book as I’ve read). Given the unpalatable nature of the trade-off involved in The Choice, there will always be a strong incentive for theorists of a zealously ideological or activist bent to bypass it. The Choice is an obstacle to pursuing the most clear and direct route to The Ideal; anyone zealously anxious to achieve The Ideal will be inclined to pursue what the Qur’an calls the sirat mustaqim, the straightest and most direct path, to it.

The most obvious way to do this is to legislate Gaus’s trade-off away by insisting that every (genuine) local optimum leads by definition to The Ideal. There is, we might say, either no conflict or active harmony between the pursuit of local optima and the pursuit of The Ideal. Put another way: a local condition that doesn’t somehow promote The Ideal is not, properly understood, a local optimum at all, but sub-optimal precisely because it demands a needless detour away from The Ideal. It may look like a “local optimum,” but that’s an illusion; such local “optima” are not real optima, but merely what happens when you allow the political equivalents of multitasking and ADHD to dominate politics.

One way to achieve the harmony of local to remote ideals is to conceive The Ideal in essentially (or exclusively) negative terms, as the abolition of some one oppressive thing whose removal will by itself usher in The Ideal.** Call this oppressive thing X. On the “harmonization” view, X is all that stands in the way of perfect justice. Once we get rid of X, perfect justice will be realized. So abolishing X is “all” we have to do.

That may sound trivializing or reductive, but suppose that X is formidable enough an institution that abolishing it is no easy task–a matter of centuries rather than years or decades of work. If so, there’s nothing “trivial” about abolishing X: the task of abolishing it is potentially the work of many generations. But it only has a chance of success if those generations focus, laser-like, on the task. If they’re distracted by other things, the abolition of X has no chance of happening, whether in centuries or in millennia. Hence justice demands that we put the abolition of X at the forefront of our concerns, relegating all second- or third priority concerns to the backburner (or really, forgetting about them altogether as a luxury we can’t afford).

Abolitionism seems to bypass Gaus’s Choice. If the ultimate normative goal is no more and no less than the abolition of X, then we have a single monistic standard for making what Gaus regards as a difficult Choice. By abolitionist lights (by contrast with Gaus), for any choice in our neighborhood, we’re simply to ask which of the available options does the most work, causally speaking, at undermining or getting rid of X. Once we get the answer, that choice will ipso facto achieve the local optimum. But in doing so, the same choice will ipso facto bring us closer to The Ideal. Apply this to every choice in our neighborhood, and whenever we achieve a local optimum, we are ipso facto closer to The Ideal than we previously were. It’s an analytic truth that every abolitionist local optimum promotes The Abolitionist Ideal, and does so better than anything that isn’t an abolitionist local optimum. QED. Choice avoided. Problem solved. Justice achieved.

If we assume that abolition is the only task of politics, then The Choice becomes easy: just a semi-rote matter of finding and bringing about local optima that maximize the abolition or subversion of X, on the assumption that the realization of any abolitionist local optimum is by definition progress toward the realization of The Abolitionist Ideal. Greater abolition of X is always better than less or none, and the only thing that really matters. So politics is just abolitionist iteration: get rid of X. It sounds robotically easy, but in practice ends up being harder than it sounds.

This bring us to a further choice that Gaus does not (as far as I know) discuss. There are two ways of looking at this strategy of “Bypassing Gaus’s Choice by Abolitionist Elimination of the Trade-Off Involved” (“AE” for “Abolitionist Elimination”). We could either reject AE as an oversimplification of normative reality that purchases simplicity at the price of self-deception, or we could accept AE as a meta-ideal of its own that, in its monistic simplicity, cuts through the normative over-complications that beset so many academic dreamers and hand-wringers. The first option seems to respect the complexity and diversity of human experience, but the second has the virtue of pragmatic efficacy: because AE cuts through needless complications and paralyzing trade-offs, it has a real chance of bringing about The Ideal by empirically measurable increments. I see the attraction of both options, and find myself wondering if there isn’t some third alternative to them that rejects what’s problematic in each while preserving what’s right in each. I’m less than half-way through the book, so maybe Gaus has one. We’ll see.

*More technically: A Rawlsian neighborhood is “a rough continuum of basic structures, each very close (practically speaking) to some others in the aspects along which these structures are varied as available systems of social cooperation,” quoted in Gaus, Tyranny, p. 75, from Rawls, Justice as Fairness, p. 70.

**An alternative strategy is to conceive of Utopia in “positive” terms as the absence of some utterly desirable thing, Y, such that anything that promotes Y to any degree becomes a local optimum that coheres with the pursuit of Y as a utopian ideal. I realize that “negative” and “positive” are apt to be confusing here, but I’m using “negative” to refer to ideals that require the abolition of something, and “positive” to ideals that require the establishment of something.

One thought on “Local Optima and Abolitionist Ideals

  1. I haven’t gotten to p. 82 yet, but isn’t The Choice in-principle easily made correctly by applying decision theory (calculating expected justice-y utility for each option)? Shooting from the hip: if (i) we have pretty radical uncertainty about wha arrangements would best approximate or achieve relevant fundamental standards of justice (especially given that this would likely involve institutions, technologies and “forms of life” we have not even imagined yet) and (ii) the value of achieving such “perfect justice” does not dwarf (by orders of magnitude, say) the value of some locally justice-wise best option (that might, for all we know, make it harder to get to the ideal arrangement, whatever that is), then what is advisable is transitioning to the local justice-wise best option. Right? It seems likely that this is often our position.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s